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« February, 2003 »

As you probably know by now, I like to read about diseases. Or, more to the point, the people that study diseases and how they spread and how they are cured. This book, like many of Rouche’s, is a study in medical detection. It is an after-the-fact investigation into the great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, what caused it and hopefully how to avoid other similar pendemics in the future. Kolata is an interesting writer and has really done her homework. Not only does she jam many of the facts of this case into an interesting narrative, but she manages to put personal touches on many of the stories of people involved in the flu, either as victims or researchers. She also includes some very interesting tales of digging up corpses in frozen parts of the world to see if live flu cultures can be extracted and studied. Kolota ties in many of the other great pandemics [plague, cholera, swine flu] and explains what all the fuss is about vaccinations. I felt smarter after I read this book.

R is for Rocket

Before we had people walking on the moon, but after we knew space travel was possible and in fact likely, science fiction was in a weird place. On the one hand, it was still possible to be weirdly futuristic and completely ignore present-day developments in space travel. On the other hand, it became quite likely that future America was going to have these space rockets integrated in to the very folds of everyday existence. Bradbury, whose scifi has always been very down to earth and personality and character based, has written about a future in which rockets are all around us -- where the family man instead of going to work at the office goes to work in the stars.

Kids in this future world don’t just dream about going to space, some of them actually get to go. Rocket launches are commonplace and the rockets themselves become almost a sideline compared to what they can do. Some of Bradbury’s best stories are in this collection from “Here There be Tygers” to “Uncle Einar.” In light of recent rocket events and disasters, this book induces a wistful sort of nostalgia for a future that never was.

A Box of Matches

Nicholson Baker holds an odd place in the hearts of librarians everywhere because of his book Double Fold which had a lot of choice words for librarians who were getting rid of old and in some cases irreplaceable newspapers. Baker took exception this, librarians took exception to Baker and the rest is history. I haven’t read that book, this may be the first book of his that I have finished [I can’t get through Vox, I just can’t] And you know what? It’s great. It tells a sort of nothing-happens tale of a man living in New England who wakes up and starts the fire every morning, and thinks about stuff, the book is the daily diary of the things he thinks about.

If you’re not from New England, or you don’t have the morning fire routine or don’t live in the country somewhere, you may not relate to this. The main character lives in a country house and has a pet duck, and a cat, and spends a lot of pages in this slim novel talking about those things, the minutae of making coffee. He has a beard and a wife, like Baker, and lives in New England, like Baker. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to call this somewhat autobiographical, but I don’t know Baker much more than that, so it’s of no consequence. The book has a very peaceful vibe and is a quick read. The main characters observations rung true, to me, and so I enjoyed getting to spend a short while inside his head, you may too.


Sometimes, my librarian friends toss me a young adult novel or two, just to keep me in touch with what kids are reading, or maybe should read. Feed is a dystopian sort of cyber-tale about a possible future where all people [actually all people who can afford it] have “feeds” implanted into their heads at birth. These feeds, which basically resemble customized Internet nodes, fill their heads and minds with marketing and hyperspeak while also allowing them to make quick purchases, chat with other feed-enabled people, and look stuff up. Of course, it’s all run and controlled by corporations and of course this has some terrible downsides. Our protagonist is a likable enough guy who meets a girl who didn’t get her feed until she was seven. She is poor, sort of, and speaks a somewhat weird English. As the story progresses, you realize that the feed is literally dumbing people down and making people into even more passive and happy consumers than they aready are. The girl reacts against that and makes a lot of enemies in the process, among the cool kid teens. It doesn’t all turn out okay in the end and the book is a little “message heavy” but very readable and Anderson has managed to write a book about complex teen issues without seeming like he’s prostelytizing or preaching. All the teens have something redeeming and they are all in some ways flawed.

Fire Watch

Connie Willis is quite simply my favorite female sci fi writer. She has a lot of really good qualities, all of which are emphasized in this collection of short stories. First, she gives all the stories little introductions, not like “this is what I was thinking when I was writing this...” but often little teasers, giving you an idea of what you are getting into without explicitly telling you what is going to happen. Something like “this story did not turn out at all what I epxected it to be like.” or something. As a result, you read with anticipation which makes the stories come to life even more than they already do. Second, she uses many different techniques in different stories. Her stories can be satirical, straight up sci-fi, historical fiction, or a combination of those. Willis is comfortable in all genres, it seems, and seems to delight in her abilities to agilely manipulate the language to suit her plots and characters. Lastly, her stories are complicated, sometimes so much so that I’m not really sure, at the end of them, what exactly happened. This can be maddening if it happens too often, but more often than not it just points out my own sloppy reading styles and then I get to re-read her pieces with more attention to detail.

This book contains stories about the Blitz on London, some of her time travelling students, some biting satire and some really sad characters. You never forget that Willis is a female writer which I also think is one of the strengths of her writing. She tackles many complex societal issues having to do with sex and relationships as a sideline of writing truly readable and captivating stories.


My friend was at a reading recently, to forth graders, where Palahniuk explained that his name rhymes with “suck a dick” Okay, he didn’t say the word “dick” but he said the rest of it. I thought that was hilarious and sort of sums up my feelings about his books. I don’t get the feeling that his novels are gross because he’s trying to shock anyone, or is working out some inner demons, I think they’re gross because those are the things he thinks about and, well, writing is his job. Lucky guy.

This story is about a guy who chokes. Well, that’s what the notes say but it’s really a complicated story of family and abandonment and this character who is just a mess [and many of Palahniuk’s are] and how he deals with it. He raises money for his invalid and somewhat crazy Mom by choking [for real] in restaurants and then letting the people who have saved his life continue to be a part of it, often by sending him money. He works it like a racket. If you read any of Palahniuk’s other books, this will not surprise you. Oh yeah and he’s also a sex addict. And for a short part of the book he thinks he is Jesus Christ. I totally enjoy the seemy underbelly of characters and situations that Palahniuk’s books spell out in gory detail. As with all his books, they are not for everyone.

Who Got Einstein’s Office?

I’m one of those people who is not super smart about science, but like to learn more all the time. And, since I have a pretty bad memory, I can learn parts of it over and over again, for the rest of my life. Regis goes inside the Priceton Institute for Advanced Study and tries to make the really high-end science they were working on there understandable to a science fan like myself. He starts from the humble beginnings of the institute and explores the ins and outs of the workings of the place until the present day. Since the IAS has been so secretive about its own history, some of the stories Regis tells [like the mental instability of Kurt Goedel] seem a little bit like gossip, but overall he tries to make the science interesting, the people fascinating and the secrets not-so-secret.

The Forbidden Experiment: The story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron

The forbidden experiment this title refers to concerns experiments that would lend a great deal of understanding to the world of science but for moral and ethical reasons are unperformable. Raising children in closets to see what happens to their language learning ability is one of those experiments. However, every once in a great while, a child comes into the limelight who has been raised in some completely non-standard [or unknown] way as to make them a tabula rasa of sorts. Then, of course, the scientists come flocking.

This book concerns one such child, a boy who was captured living seemingly wildly in the woods of France in 1800. He was shuffled around a bit but came under intense scrutiny by one particular scientist who made it a part of his life’s work to teach this “savage” to talk and perhaps even to read. His detailed notebooks have been translated and commented on by the author and make for very fascinating reading. The experiment ultimately failed, in some respects, but the insights gained both by the professor at the time, and the author of this book in the present, are worth the read. Concepts explored include the nature of wildness, people’s fascination with the “natural state” the learnign and teaching profess, the appropriateness of differing levels of closeness in the student/teacher relationship, etc. Shattuck is able to take an event that happened over 200 years ago and make it still entertaining but also thought provoking and somehow poignant. Many of the questions that the wild boy’s teacher sought to answer remain unknown and in this new age of improved communication and information, the liklihood of discovering any future “wild boys” that are not also victims of some sort of terrible abuse seems very remote indeed.

The Mapmakers

It is hard for me to imagine a time when I did not know what the outlines of the states looked like, or the outlines of any states, in other countries. I have always been familiar with what the surface of the moon looks like, both through my own observations as well as pictures in books that have been available to me since I was young. It’s hard, then, to imagine a time when the way the world looked was not known, when in fact there was still uncharted territory, where maps ended.

Wilford has created a wonderful though somewhat dense history of mapmaking. Along with it, he has also created a history of knowledge, or a history of “what we know and what we need to know.” He starts off with the earliest maps -- the TO format where the earth was represented as a circle split by two large rivers into three sections -- and continues until he is describing the satellite mapping of the surface of Mars. Along the way he explains and illustrates not only what is going on, but what is driving these people forward. He discusses projections [with great illustrations] and longitude and minute technological advancements that drove more and more people to try to determine what was “out there.” Since the book is so well researched, and Wilford obviously delights in his topic, it can be a bit slow going; I think I have been reading this book on and off for the better part of six weeks. However, once you reach the end where surveying is done with handheld GPS units and the last rivers and icebergs on the face of the planet have been put in their proper places, you definitely have not only a sense of accomplishment but a feeling of being well-versed in an entire body of knowledge, which is a good feeling to have.